by Andrew Garda
The 2019 Montclair High School football team’s senior class may have been the smallest group in head coach John Fiore’s decade tenure, but as a collective, they have had as big an impact on the just-ended season as some of their larger predecessors.
Naturally, much can be said of captains Nareece Wright, Shawn Collins, Sebastien Fortune and Pat Barr, all of whom stepped into leadership roles and often helped maintain the Mounties’ focus during an occasionally trying season.
Fortune and Barr were the linchpins of a very young and inexperienced offensive line, and Fortune had to shift from center, where he’d been the starter since the Mounties’ undefeated championship season in 2017, to tackle.
That’s not an easy transition, but he handled it well.
Barr, who had only begun playing football four years ago, had stepped into a full-time guard role last season and performed admirably, securing a permanent spot for this year. Montclair’s run game was a strong as ever, racking up more than 2,300 rushing yards — more than 230 per game — highlighted by the shootout against Seton Hall Prep, when MHS ran for 361 yards on the parochial power, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
Both Fortune and Barr played through some injuries this season, but definitely had an impact as leaders both on and off the field.
Collins, of course, has already committed to play football at Rutgers next fall, and came into his own over the course of this season. While he was a play-maker at defensive end, it was his work to become a complete tight end which really made an impact. His routes, use of hands, and blocking improved exponentially as the season progressed, and culminated in key touchdown receptions against Irvington, including the highlight of the season, his memorable game-winning 17-yard TD from Michael Robinson with four seconds remaining.
Wright was a key piece and team lader on defense, a hard-hitting linebacker who had a nose for getting into the backfield. The team leader with 90 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss, Wright was noted by Fiore more than once as a critical part of the Mounties defensive efforts throughout the season and he stepped up more than once in big moments.
As much as the captains stepped up, others who perhaps were not expected to have as large an impact also made themselves known this year.
Donovin Bell had an excellent season on both sides of the ball, becoming one of Robinson’s favorite targets (leading the team with 21 catches for 392 yards and 5 TDs) while also having a very strong year at cornerback, breaking up 10 passes and intercepting three. Bell made some acrobatic catches, and showed he might have the stuff to play at the next level.
Senior tailback Nate Bryan looked like he would be a big part of the running game until a preseason injury allowed junior Jordan Diggs to take over the largest share of the carries. However, Bryan never complained, instead making the most of his carries but really stepping up on defense where he did excellent work at cornerback. His selfless play was everything the coaching staff talks about when referring what it is to “be a Mountie.”
The rest of the 13 seniors — Bilal Muhammad, Anthony Jackson, Juwan Agustin, Zachary Lepak, Maka’i Harris, Lucas Vnek, and Jordan Anderson — all had moments like that as well, stepping in when needed and performing well.
It may not have been a large group, but their loss will be felt in 2020, Fiore said.
But from a numbers standpoint, the future looks bright at MHS. The Mounties return their No. 1 quarterback and No. 1 rusher, Robinson and Diggs, respectively, as well as two-way impact sophomore Jordan Williams (third on the team in rushing and third in tackles), four offensive linemen with starting experience, and a host of skill players who saw the field this year.
A promising freshman season by kicker Gage Hammond should mean big things for the Mountie kicking game, as well; Hammond had a tough start to the season, but finished strong by converting his final 25 kicks of the season — 24 straight extra points and one field goal.
Hammond was already out at Woodman Field practicing for next season because the biggest thing the senior class gave the underclassmen is a firm idea of what it takes to be a Mountie on the gridiron.
The season may be over, but for Montclair football, the work never is.
NUMBERS & NOTES
While the heartbreaking playoff loss to East Orange snapped Montclair’s run of nine straight appearances in the sectional playoff semifinals, MHS did finish .500 or better for the 24th time in the past 27 years, dating back to Ed Lebida’s first season (1993) … While the Mounties’ season point total of 290 is the lowest in Fiore’s 10 seasons at MHS, it is still the 20th-highest point total in Montclair’s 125 years of football, and ranks 21st in program history in points per game … Diggs posted Montclair’s 12th 1,000-yard rushing season in Fiore’s 10 years here, with his 1,237 yards ranking ninth in that span. Diggs will look to become the third Mountie to reach the 1,000-yard mark multiple times in the Fiore era, joining Khalif Herbin (2010, 2011), Elijah Robinson (2013, 2014) and Daniel Webb (2015, 2016, 2017) … Montclair’s updated all-time win total stands at 757, best in New Jersey and more than 50 wins ahead of second-place Phillipsburg.